East German brands thirty years on: nostalgia helps drive a revival

In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, many of East Germany’s consumer businesses collapsed as citizens flocked to previously unattainable western products, with their high-quality branding and sharp designs.

In the economic upheaval post-unification some 14,000 East German businesses were privatised, industrial output fell by half and about 3.5 million jobs were lost. Compounding the pain of this traumatic adjustment, demand for once popular products collapsed as the nation’s preferences changed seemingly overnight.

Thirty years on, however, some of the old names have made a startling comeback and are stronger than ever on a mix of clever branding and Ostalgie, a term used for a form of nostalgia for the German Democratic Republic. From face creams to laundry detergent, to mustard and pickles, East German brands are seeing a coming of age, helped by a combination of professional marketing and retro-styling.

Take shoe brand Zeha for example. It was the sports shoe of the East German regime, supplying footwear, with its two distinguishing double stripes, to the East German Olympics team. After the wall came down the company was taken over by the German Privatisation Agency. Production stopped in 1992.

A decade later, the chance discovery of the familiar shoes of his youth at a friend’s house inspired entrepreneur Andre Barré to relaunch the brand. The shoes retain the patented double stripes but are a far cry from the Socialist footwear of the past, with better technology, design and materials. Zeha now positions itself as an upmarket range, with its sports shoes retailing for more than €200.

Then there’s Rotkappchen, which was the sparkling wine of choice for the East German leadership. After unification its annual sales plummeted to just three million bottles, from 15.5 million in the mid-1980s, forcing the winery to lay off some 300 of its 360 employees.

Rotkappchen was bought by management in 1993. They improved winemaking techniques and focused on quality, resulting in a spectacular turnaround. The company, which took over the prestigious Mumm brand from Seagrams in 2002, now has about 40 per cent of the German bubbly market with turnover topping €1 billion in 2018 on sales of 278 million bottles.

Spee was the GDR’s leading washing powder with an 80 per cent share of the market. In 1990, it was bought by consumer goods company Henkel, which gave Spee a cartoon fox as a brand icon. The powder was positioned as high-quality, low-cost and is now the second-biggest seller in the country behind Persil, which is also owned by Henkel.

Similarly, Rostfein Kaffee came to realise that it wasn’t the taste of its coffee that was the cause of plunging sales following reunification, but the quality of its packaging. After a seven-year absence, it relaunched its signature Rondo Mélange brand in 1997 and went on to sell 5,000 tonnes of coffee in the first year.

Academics have written lengthy papers on the irony of building multi-billion dollar businesses through the creation of a “myth” of Socialism. The products appeal to a younger generation who were never subject to the hardships of the former East German regime and who have no familiarity with the brands. Brands can’t live on sentimentality alone however and the ironic explanation of their appeal overlooks the fact that some of the products were actually good and still are.

But in the continuing renaissance of East German products, there is one icon that has not yet been reinvented. The Trabant was the unreliable two-stroke car that East Germans had to wait for years to own. Much vaunted plans for an electric version have not yet borne fruit. The car lives on as an image on T-shirts and memorabilia. Some products, it would appear, are beyond the wizardry of modern marketing.